Revising the Joseph Smith manual

Ever since my calling in Young Women’s ended a year ago, I have enjoyed the lessons on Joseph Smith that we are studying in Relief Society and Priesthood.  I appreciate this attempt to understand our founding prophet’s life within a historical context, and, until recently, I felt touched and awed at hearing the prophet’s own recorded voice.  What changed?  Well, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t actually hearing his voice. 

Although I knew that Joseph Smith’s writing is far more grammatically troubled than what we find in the manual, I never thought to question the surface accuracy of what I was reading in the manual.  The manual mentions that it has standardized some of the writing, but until I actually compared the originals to the standardized manual, I didn’t realize how much was being altered or lost in my persepctive of the prophet.  Even though the standardized letters still touch me, my faith is affirmed far more when I can glimpse Joseph Smith as a person who struggles with both his view of the world and his lack of formal education.  The standardizations block my access to these important parts of Joseph Smith’s character, presenting me with a man who is far more polished and poetic than the Joseph Smith I see in his own writing.  The modern insertion of periods, semi-colons, and commas where there are none potentially changes his meaning.

But the biggest problem with the manual might not be standardization: it also confuses words that come from Jospeh directly and mere recordings by other present parties.  The manual presents words that are in fact only attributed to Joseph Smith in quotation marks, giving the impression to the reader who doesn’t check the footnotes that he actually said them. 

I can appreciate why the Church might want to standardize the language for ease of reading, but such standardization and confusing/mis-attributions present an inaccurate portrait of our prophet.  We could preserve both ease of use and authenticity if we displayed the original wording, the standardized transcription, and the citations all side-by-side.  Given the impressive work being done on the Joseph Smith Papers, there is no reason why our most studied manuals cannot be held to higher standards.

As an example, compare the following original letter (picked at random), which the Church has wonderfully posted and transcribed on its website, to the excerpt found in the manual:

Original
Oct 13 1832
 P Pearl Street House N Y
 My Dear Wife
 This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory therefore their iniquities shall [be] visited upon their heads and their works shall be burned up with unquenchable fire the inequity of the people is printed in every countinance and nothing but the dress of the people makes them look fair and butiful all is deformity their is something in every countinance that is disagreable with few exceptions Oh how long Oh Lord Shall this order of things exist and darkness cover the Earth and gross darkness cover the people after beholding all that I had any desire to behold I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind and behold the thaughts of home of Emma and Julia rushes upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for [a] moment to be with them my breast is filld with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and a Husband and could I be with you I would tell you many things yet when I reflect upon this great city like Ninevah not desearning their right hand from their left yea more then two hundred [thousand] souls my bowels is filled with compasion towards them and I am determined to lift up my voice in this City and leave the Event with God who holdeth all things in his hands and will not suffer an hair of our heads unnoticed to fall to the ground there is but few Cases of the cholra in this City now and i you should see the people you would not that know that they people had ever heard of the [cholra] I hope you will excuse me for writting this letter so soon after w[r]iting for I feel as if I wanted to [say] you say something to you to comfort you in your beculier triel and presant affliction I hope God will give you strength that you may not faint I pray God to soften the hearts of those arou[n]d you to be kind to you and take [the] burdon of[f] your shoulders as much as posable and not afflict you I feel for you for I know you[r] state and that others do not but you must cumfort yourself knowing that God is your friend in heaven and that you hav[e] one true and living friend on Earth your Husband
 Joseph Smith Jr.

Manual

“This day I have been walking through the most splendid part of the city of New York.  The buildings are truly great and wonderful, to the astonishing of every beholder. . . . After beholding all that I had any desire to behold, I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind; and behold, the thoughts of home, of Emma and Julia, rush upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for a moment to be with them.  My breast is filled with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and a husband, and could I be with you I would tell you many things…

“I feel as if I wanted to say something to you to comfort you in your peculiar trial and present affliction [Emma was pregnant at the time].  I hope God will give you the strength that you may not faint.  I pray God to soften the hearts of those around you to be kind to you and to take the burden off your shoulders as much as possible and not afflict you.  I feel for you, for I know your state and that others do not, but you must comfort yourself knowing that God is your friend in heaven and that you have one true and living friend on earth, your husband” (241).

 

Update: JNS has an earlier post on this topic here.

Comments

  1. Natalie, I think you raise some wonderful points about the Prophet Joseph Smith. In order to fully appreciate the Prophet we must have an undiluted perception of him. His flaws as a person only contribute to his greatness as a Prophet and the Lord’s Anointed.

  2. While I am all for more transparent editing, these manuals are for a worldwide church and are translated into many different languages. Hard to translate non-standard communication. And while authentic document transcriptions are the focus of virtually all of my spare time, I don’t think that even the English speaking Church necessarily benefit equally from such labor.

    If I were to single out things from the manuals that bugged me, it would be the too frequent reliance on retrospectives and the use of the History of the Church for JS’s sermons.

  3. I miss Justin’s side-by-side comparisons. Sighhhhh Justin, how we long for thee!

  4. Indeed, he and I put up links to all the publicly available source material and/or transcribed relevant sections for the first couple of months. Too much work though.

  5. For me, nothing connects me more immediately to people than the raw, unedited documents of history. But that connection doesn’t come automatically — reading raw documents is a skill, even an art. Just getting a handwritten document to the point where it can be reproduced in type as what Natalie labels “Original” — which of course is NOT the original, but a neat little typescript that has been puzzled out from old-fashioned handwriting, with editorial decisions made about smudges, smears, and ambiguous letters, faded ink, bleed-through, flyspecks, interlineations and overstrikes, with missing letters and words supplied in square brackets for clarity — requires far more judgment and practice than you’d ever imagine until you actually tried it.

    For the vast majority of people, even educated people reading this blog, the effort would be so great that they wouldn’t hear the voice of Joseph Smith at all; they would be lost, resentful, and bored. Might as well try to read the Old Testament in Hebrew — Kevin Barney and a few others might learn something, but most of us would be blocked from any access to the prophetic voice.

    Much, much, much, much better from a pedagogical standpoint to do exactly what the church has done, and leave it to historians and buffs to discover the joy of taking one or more steps back toward the original. If you tried starting at that level, you’d get virtually no benefit from the exercise.

  6. In preparing for last Sunday’s lesson I was a bit surprised to find the footnotes point at this part of the appendix:

    3. Adding or changing words or phrases. Many of the original notes taken of the Prophet’s sermons are brief, incomplete, and disconnected. In some of these instances, Church historians reconstructed the Prophet’s sermons based on the available records, drawing also upon their memories and experiences with the Prophet. This work sometimes involved adding or changing words or phrases to fill in gaps and clarify meaning.

    This would include changing 3rd person accounts to 1st person as well, I assume.

    Though, in retrospect I think that this is one of those things that, when called on it, one already understands, but for some reason it is usually only in the back of one’s mind.

  7. The manual makes Joseph seem too ‘smooth’ for me. One of the strongest arguments for the restoration being true, at least for me, is the fact that JS was not a polished, educated man who could have planned a great deception and carried it off with minimal help. Reading even a reasonably faithful transcript of his actual writings reinforces my feelings that he was a vessel that the Lord filled. Reading the manual does not affect me so deeply.

  8. I disagree.

    I’m all for accuracy in historical information, and I hope that the source materials will always be readily available for all who want to view them, but these manuals are not primarily designed to teach us about Joseph or his exact words. Rather, they are designed to teach gospel principles using his words.

    With that difference in mind, I appreciate the cleaned up grammar and punctuation and I see no material change in meaning. It appears to me, in fact, that the Church has gone to remarkable lengths and great effort to preserve the original meaning while cleaning up the grammar and puctuation, and referencing whose version the words come from in the footnotes. I appreciate that effort, and I think anyone who simply fails to read the footnotes deserves any misunderstanding that occurs. The original version is actually quite hard to read and would make my job as EQ instructor that much more difficult.

    I also think that, in many instances, using quotation marks around the words that come from the writings of others is appropriate in this case. Joseph did not keep his own journal for many years of his life. He asked others to do that for him in an official capacity. Therefore, their writings are more than just someone’s recollection. They are writing in the capacity of Joseph’s recorder, and, in many cases, they are recording the words at the time they were spoken. It seems wrong to quibble about the use of quotation marks in such circumstances.

  9. MCQ, from now on I’ll just quote my recollection of your comments rather than your comments. It seems wrong to quibble about the use of quotation marks in such circumstances.

  10. Ardis, said what I wanted to, but much better.

  11. Mark Brown says:

    The think to notice in this conversation is that the manuals have been moving in the direction Natalie suggests.

    The JSP project made this manual possible, and it is a substantially better manual than some earlier ones in this series.

  12. i agree w Ardis and Staples.

  13. iguacufalls says:

    The purpose of the manuals isn’t to give one the feeling of what Joseph was like. Rather, it’s to teach the principles that Joseph taught. The main body of the church has no interest in parsing through misspellings as they learn their doctrine and it would be a poor teaching method for them. Those of us that enjoy such things know where we can find them.

  14. Daymon M. Smith did a fascinating presentation at last year’s annual meeting for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion about the process of the creation of the Presidents of the Church manuals–focusing on the preparation of the John Taylor manual. I would guess that the process preparing the Joseph Smith manual was somewhat different, but I suspect the overall principles were the same.

    The committee that created the John Taylor manual were not historians and had no particular expertise in Church history or John Taylor. The historical department had assembled some Taylor materials, but the committee’s first assignment was not to read what Taylor said or wrote, but to construct an outline of the topics and subtopics of the chapters of the manual.

    There is a “Curriculum Planning Worksheet”, originally developed by Harold B. Lee, which has been modified over the years, and from which the topics and subtopics were taken.

    One member of the committee objected to developing the topics and subtopics before actually reading what President Taylor had to say or write, but his concerns were assuaged by an assurance that the topics/subtopics could be modified as the committee went along.

    The various quotations from President Taylor were then selected to fit into the pre-existing topic-sub-topic framework.

    I am not sure there is much of difference between the two potential processes, but, in summary, I understand that rather than beginning with what Taylor said, and modifying it as necessary to be relevant to today (and consistent with today’s teachings), the process begins with what messages the committee believes we need to hear today, and then finds them among the teachings of the Presidents of the Church.

  15. Funny, Steve! But wrong, of course.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ: “Steve is so funny and right.”

    I agree.

  17. For the vast majority of people, even educated people reading this blog, the effort would be so great that they wouldn’t hear the voice of Joseph Smith at all; they would be lost, resentful, and bored. Might as well try to read the Old Testament in Hebrew — Kevin Barney and a few others might learn something, but most of us would be blocked from any access to the prophetic voice.

    Very well said.

    Not to mention, to get the entire block of text would squeeze out three others.

  18. I agree with what Ardis (5), J. Stapley (10), and smb (12)said. [grin]

  19. So, you’re saying you are the official chronicler of my comments, Steve? Doesn’t really work when my comments actually exist, does it? Also, where are your footnotes?

  20. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ: “You are the official chronicler of my comments, Steve.”

    see MCQ: The Official Chronicle, Vol. I, pp 56-58 et seq.

  21. Sweet!

  22. Natalie B. says:

    Let me just point out that I said that the optimal solution would be a side by side look at the translation and the original, thus providing the benefits of both ease and access to those who have difficulties reading the originals. Honestly, I don’t think that a typed copy that replicates the errors of the originals are especially hard to follow, though I agree that the handwriting would never fly. However, it is the inappropriate use of quotations that bothers me the most, and that problem we could easily fix.

    #14 – What an interesting comment. It’s hard to believe that we can really extract principles from the prophets if we don’t look at what they actually say.

  23. #22, I’m not persuaded that lifting the curtain on the Wizard is really in the best interests of the church or its majority membership. We have founders who didn’t write much and lived before microphones and recording equipment. Rather than en face publication, as you propose, I would recommend what they’ve done, which is JSPP for scholarly use and the manual for devotional use.
    And the LDS Church has a strong history of divine presentism/immediacy that plays into this notion of allowing the current prophets to set the agenda and inviting prior prophets into that discussion. It’s not how I necessarily worship, but it may well be the best solution for public, majority devotion.

  24. Natalie B. says:

    I see your point, smb, but I really want to be treated as an adult about my religious faith and decisions. And that means trusting that I am a smart enough person to be able to balance an accurate version of our history with current teachings. I think it is wrong that there exists a scholarly “elite” who know our church history and the rest of us (which until very recently included me) don’t. People often don’t have a choice as to whether or not they learn church history, because, in my experience, learning that it exists depends a lot on who you know and learn from.

    I don’t see any problem with saying that current teaching trump past teachings, but I don’t see why that needs to be accompanied by historical distortion. Cherry picking, for example, John Taylor’s teachings to fit into a list of topics seems to me like a way of reinventing our history that might be pragmatic, but that I object to if it is presented to me as history. I don’t think that I can support a faith founded on ignorance, because so much of our narrative about faith begins with studying the issues before praying about them.

  25. I’d love to have a Sunday School or Priesthood course on the Prophet Joseph himself. But to me, that isn’t what we now have – not with regard to Joseph, nor as to any of his successors. It appears to me that the purpose of the manual is to teach us what Joseph taught, not to teach about Joseph (except for the introductory material). Doing so in terms that make sense in modern English and other languages certainly requires some interpretation. But not doing so would considerably dilute the manual’s usefulness to most of us in doctrinal terms. I love the original documents, and were I a quorum instructor in an English-speaking unit I might sometimes use them. But it would be tough to do so more than occasionally without getting sidetracked from a discussion of the doctrine and how it applies to the lives of my quorum members.

  26. But we never have studied “what John Taylor said” — or what any other prophet said, or even the Book of Mormon or the New Testament — in Sunday School or any other auxiliary (an elective Institute or college course for a select few, maybe). I am not aware of a single course of study, ever, in the entire period of the modern church’s existence, where we have ever done that for the general church membership.

    We’ve never gone verse by verse, or chapter by chapter, never made a systematic survey of the writings of any prophet, to be able to say “THIS is what Isaiah (or Joseph or Wilford or …) said.”

    Instead, we do and have always studied studied topics, even when they were presented in a more chronological fashion than the current MP/RS lessons. We’ve always taught “Joseph was a prophet, and here are some evidences for that. “Faith is the first principle of the gospel, and here are some scriptures that explain what faith is.” “Brigham Young led the pioneers west, and here are some incidents of their migration.” “There are three degrees of glory, and here is what we mean by that.”

    To study some individual’s teachings, or to understand what and how and why the Gospel of Luke works, is something very different, and has always been more of an intellectual than a gospel-instructional process.

    History, even church history, is an intellectual endeavor, too, not a coherent method of teaching the gospel, despite how freely we (mis)use the idea. The process you are calling for — a study of original texts, and a study of the full range of a man’s thought, rather than a mediated text and a doctrinally relevant selection from his thought, falls on the intellectual side of the issue, rather than on the side of promulgating the gospel.

    You’re welcome, and very able (and blessed to live in a time and place and with the linguistic and educational tools) to search out the history, as are most of us reading this thread. That isn’t at all what most members of the church need or want, though. They’re responding to the gospel, which is what the church must teach, not the scholarly thrill.

  27. You’re welcome, and very able (and blessed to live in a time and place and with the linguistic and educational tools) to search out the history, as are most of us reading this thread. That isn’t at all what most members of the church need or want, though. They’re responding to the gospel, which is what the church must teach, not the scholarly thrill.

    This is the material point, I think.

    I also think a review of the 4 gospels is relevant to this discussion. Each of the authors were certainly writing with a specific audience in mind and with different styles and skill levels – and times and places. I don’t look at this as an impediment – but a reality of the way God communicates with his children. As someone told me recently, “The ancients had no use for history without a narrative!”

    Likewise, the audience of the JS manual is a worldwide church and I think the manner in which it has been given to us reflects that.

  28. I think this post nicely shows how the manual not only distorts Joseph Smith’s voice, but in fact also distorts his understanding of the gospel. In the redacted quote, we lose the millenialism, the expectation of calamity, that was so vivid and so integral to the man’s view of the gospel. That’s not just a change in intellectual purpose, but also a noteworthy redirection in terms of religious message. I can definitely imagine a devotional manual that was less deceptive and manipulative than the published Joseph Smith manual without sacrificing translatability, comprehensibility, length, and other worthy considerations.

  29. Natalie, your suggestion of a side by side version of the manual is unworkable, as it would be far to long. In addition, you’re missing the point, made by others on this thread, that teaching history is not the goal of this manual. If you want that instruction you can get it in an institute class or through individual study or innumerable books written by independent, as well as institutional, sources. You’re not going to get it from the manual, nor should you.

    JNS, that’s just bunk.

  30. I have to agree with Ardis and Stapley on this. I spent a couple of months plowing through Volume 1 of the JSPP, and while I appreciate the careful transcription of the source documents, it’s a whole different endeavor than what I expect from the church manuals. It’s also an issue as I am trying to put together some family history stories written by my ancestors for my kids. Yes, I want them to know who these folks were, but I’m not sure that for most of them, the unredacted transcripts are of any value, if it makes them tougher to read.

    I share Natalie’s concern about possible distortion of our view of our church leaders in these manuals, and my only suggestion would be to perhaps do a sample side by side comparison of one or two letters or documents, to show how the process works, but leave the balance alone. The footnotes are there for those of us that are interested, but the majority of people reading these manuals won’t ever look there anyway.

  31. MCQ, come on. They really couldn’t have put out a Joseph Smith manual that didn’t cut out important parts of his religious thought? Good grief.

  32. MCQ: “Natalie, I agree with you. JNS, I was…. just bunk.”

  33. JNS,
    I hate to be a defender of the manuals (because I hate the manuals), but why shouldn’t they cut out important parts of JS’s religious thought? The lessons are topical–I have no idea which lesson Natalie’s letter comes from, but if it’s a lesson on love in marriage, JS’s views on impending calamity and millenialism aren’t relevant. (FWIW, if the lesson is on preparing for the future, maybe the excised portion has some relevance.)

    I certainly think the manuals would be better if they took complete discourses so that we got the context of what was being said, and so that we weren’t prooftexting prophets’ statements, but prooftexting is decidedly what these manuals seem designed to do. As others have said, if I want a systematic introduction to the Gospel as JS understood it, I am certainly going elsewhere than the JS manual.

    I could, of course, be completely wrong–I’ve been in Primary since the manual came into currency and haven’t read a single paragraph of it–but I have to say, I’m not concerned that it ellipses-out portions of the Prophet’s thoughts.

  34. Sam B., the thing that I find troubling about this kind of editing is that it suggests that the editors think they know how to express the ideas in question better than Joseph Smith does. If Joseph’s primary thoughts were about the end of the world, and those thoughts triggered his love toward his wife and children — as seems to be the sequence in the letter — it’s odd to me that the editors should decide that the love is worth preserving and discussing but not the context in which Joseph (at reasonable length!) chose to frame his statements of that love. A statement of love in the face of apocalyptic premonitions is just different from that same statement without the apocalyptic context, in much the same way that filling my bathtub with water to take a bath is different from filling it on December 31, 1999, because I expected the world’s infrastructure to crumble in the face of the Y2K bug. So why repurpose the statement of love, stripping it of millennial context? Presenting the statement as if it were a non-millennial, emotionally even-keeled expression of familial love and duty is simply misleading. It if was done deliberately because the millennialism was seen as embarrassing or something, then it crosses the line from misleading to deceptive.

  35. “They really couldn’t have put out a Joseph Smith manual that didn’t cut out important parts of his religious thought?”

    They could have, if that were in any way at all the goal of the manual.

    “Presenting the statement as if it were a non-millennial, emotionally even-keeled expression of familial love and duty is simply misleading. It if was done deliberately because the millennialism was seen as embarrassing or something, then it crosses the line from misleading to deceptive.”

    Garbage. They took out the parts that were off topic. that portion of the letter is presented elsewhere in the manual: In the chapter that is concerned with those issues.

  36. MCQ, you’re being a bit too hostile here. If you aren’t even going to consider my arguments, then you’re just a troll.

  37. Jonathan Green says:

    JNS, you say you’re troubled that the editors think they know how to express the ideas better than JS himself. But of course they do! They know the context of the lesson manuals, and how the manuals will be used, and who the likely readers will be. Including any passage has costs, both in terms of printing and distributing a book that will be printed in a very large number of copies, and in forcing the omission of other material. Does the inclusion of the omitted passage outweigh the cost of omitting other material?

    Perhaps it does, for you and for others. But editors have to make decisions, and that is nothing new. Academic disciplines that work with older texts face the same issues all the time, and it’s simply false to think that there is some perfect expression of ideal editorial principles that will solve all the problems of teaching the Canterbury Tales (or whatever) to everyone. Some editions are better than others for some purposes. Sometimes a modern translation is necessary, sometimes a normalized Middle English is preferable, sometimes it’s nice to look at a diplomatic transcription of a particular manuscript, and sometimes it’s necessary to consult a high-quality facsimile or the original.

    But what’s useful for whom? What portion of English students are prepared to benefit from a facsimile? It’s the vanishingly small percentage who are both Chaucer specialists and experienced with using manuscripts. Most doctoral-level English medievalists will never need anything beyond a normalized edition, unless they’re dissertating on Chaucer. Most bachelor’s students won’t need anything beyond a modern translation. Requiring an “Intro to Brit Lit” class to look at a facsimile or Middle English edition instead of a translation would be foolish, because it would leave the students with a poorer understanding of Chaucer by presenting it in a way they aren’t prepared to learn from. Sure, a teacher can and should bring in supplementary material so students have an idea about the original form of the text they’re reading, and a really motivated student might seek it out on his or her own, but the primary form of pedagogy has to be in a form that most students are prepared for.

    Returning to Joseph Smith, how many members of an average class are prepared to read diplomatic transcriptions of 19th-century documents? Closer to 0 than to 1, I’d guess. Reading texts with non-standard punctuation and spelling is difficult, and liable to be misinterpreted as the sign of substandard intellect rather than as variation typical of the time or a lack of formal schooling. It would hinder the learning of JS’s thought for most people.

    For those class members who are interested in original documents, the transcription is available from the church’s own website, as Natalie points out in her post.

  38. I think there are huge costs to the oversimplification.

    Sadly, I often dread spending time with many LDS members. Every serious theological issue seems to be answered by a platitude. Most feel they understand evil, good, God, etc. — and they have some simple quote to prove it. Typically, a quote we’ve all heard a hundred times.

    That is OK for children. But that is not OK for someone who has been a member for 20 years, and has been led to believe that they are following in the footsteps of a real prophet.

    Is this intellectualism? Or is it preparation for something very serious? Personally, I can say that I wasn’t prepared for my exposure to real “extra-ordinary” events.

  39. What struck me about the difference between the versions was that the manual removed any trace of emotion. The tender and fine things he says are what one would expect a husband who’s away to write to his wife, but the things he writes about the city demonstrate an uncommon intensity to this man and certainly changes the meaning of “after beholding all that I had any desire to behold I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind” as given in the manual. Sweet sentiments written to his wife are fine and good, but don’t even touch the depths. The manual is surely sanitized and not for the better I would say.

  40. Amen Ardis on #26

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